A couple’s noble bid to brighten lives of underprivileged children

Dilkush, Hari Om, Rohit, Abhishek and Dilbur stand in line, not particularly waiting to be interviewed, but more as proof of the subject under discussion. Aged between 10 and 13 years, the boys jostle for space, smile shyly when asked their names and every now and then look towards the veranda to yell out “Shoo, Muffins!” in an attempt to pacify their favourite dog.

Their “Sir”, 36-year-old Anshuman Goswami, was narrating how the boys came to study and live under his roof in Gurgaon, in a small flat he shares with his wife, Sharon Dick. “We had a Muslim maid who invited us to her jhuggi near our house for Id celebrations. There I mentioned that I would be happy to take tuitions for children,” he says, about an incident two years ago. By the evening of November 18, 2010, the couple had six kids sitting in their lounge eager to learn, paving the way for what is today known as Divine Angels Academy.

Having countered the general perception among parents that “they are going to sell the children”, the numbers attending the Academy, especially those from migrant families from Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Bangladesh and West Bengal, grew from six to 60 and have now settled into a more predictable “16 to 20” bracket. “Initially, we were quite naive and we thought as long as the children come to study here, we don’t mind feeding them,” acknowledges Anshuman, by way of explaining the subsequent dip in numbers when the couple decided against providing regular meals.

Yet, while the class demographics has changed over the last two years from a predominantly Muslim group of children to a mixed group with Hindus, the biggest regret has been the number of girl children who were pulled out. “At one point, we had more number of girls than boys,” says Sharon, “Parents felt insecure that we are teaching their daughters not to be maids and they will soon demand to study further. It was as if the girl child has no rights and she is non-existent.”

Several students were lost to child labour, were forcibly taken back to their villages or were just banned from attending tuitions at the couple’s residence. “The most heartbreaking thing about this job is when a child is pulled out from my class,” says Anshuman, a self-proclaimed idealist who always dreamt of teaching underprivileged children.

Currently, Sharon’s job and charity from friends and well-wishers keeps the Academy afloat and pays for food, clothes and books. “We make it a point to celebrate every child’s birthday and promise them ‘awards’ to work harder in their regular schools,” says Sharon, adding that high scores translate into excursions.

Dilbur Hussain, son of a mason worker, won one such award – a trip to Mukteshwar in Uttarakhand. “The air was fresh and the trees were plenty,” he says concentrating on getting the English words right. “When I go to college, I would like to study English,” says this 13-year-old who was forcibly taken back to his village in West Bengal after which he fought with his parents to return to Gurgaon. Known to friends as “M. F. Husain” because of his surname, Dilbur is now one of the permanent residents of the Academy.

“Our mind leaves us when we visit the village. I hate going back,” says 12-year-old Hari Om Kushwaha, who feels at home with his “family” at the Divine Angels Academy. With an abundance of jokes and pranks doing the rounds, Anshuman’s words seem very true. “With the kids around, there is never a dull moment.”

More In: Delhi